Nobel prize for Grass, conscience of Germany

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The Independent Culture

THE GERMAN writer Gunter Grass, the witty and combative conscience of his country's post-war culture, has won the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature.Grass, who will be 72 this month, told reporters "I'm happy" outside his home in Behlendorf, near Lubeck in northern Germany, as Chancellor Gerhard Schroder praised the novelist's critique of post-war German society. The prize, awarded by the 15 members of the Swedish Academy, has a value of around £600,000. The Academy commended Grass for re-creating German literature "after decades of linguistic and moral destruction".

THE GERMAN writer Gunter Grass, the witty and combative conscience of his country's post-war culture, has won the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature.Grass, who will be 72 this month, told reporters "I'm happy" outside his home in Behlendorf, near Lubeck in northern Germany, as Chancellor Gerhard Schroder praised the novelist's critique of post-war German society. The prize, awarded by the 15 members of the Swedish Academy, has a value of around £600,000. The Academy commended Grass for re-creating German literature "after decades of linguistic and moral destruction".

Grass, who came to prominence with his first novel The Tin Drum in 1959, has long looked a strong candidate for the Nobel. His win suggests the Academy has listened hard to the fears of a new triumphalism voiced in Germany, as the national capital moves back to Berlin. For 40 years, this former teenage soldier in Hitler's army has turned all his weapons of satire, fantasy and polemic on the forces in his country that refuse to come to terms with the nightmare of the Nazi years. Yesterday's citation points to his preoccupation with "the victims, the losers and the lies that people wanted to forget".Grass was born in the then free state of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) on the Baltic in 1927, son of a Protestant shopkeeper father and a Catholic mother. Drafted into the Reich's crumbling army aged 17, wounded near Cottbus and captured by the Americans, he trained as a stonemason in Dusseldorf and then studied sculpture in Berlin from 1953. Many critics argue that this craft background helped to shape his robust, down-to-earth and richly comic prose (he also illustrates his own work).

After starting as poet and spending time in Paris in the late Fifties, Grass set the German cultural scene alight with The Tin Drum. For the first time, the recent Nazi past yielded a bleakly funny, fantastical yet unsparingly honest masterpiece, via the adventures of young Oskar Matzerath - the wise fool who tells the truth. Grass followed up this literary bombshell, often seen as the origin of "magic realism" in fiction, with the two other volumes of his "Danzig Trilogy" - Cat and Mouse and Dog Years.

An instant guru for his affluent but still forgetful land, Grass campaigned hard for Willy Brandt's Social Democrats during the 1960s. From the Diary of a Snail in 1972 revealed his day-to-day involvement with practical politics and his suspicion of Utopian dreams. Then he retired from the public stage, re-married and in 1977, and returned to exuberant storytelling with a moral edge in The Flounder - containing his own response to the new disputes over sexual politics. A decade later, The Rat took as its presiding theme the nuclear and environmental terrors of the Eighties.

Inevitably, German unification was the next issue to draw Grass back into the arena of political debate - a place where German writers always have an honoured place. Helmut Kohl's drive to incorporate the collapsing GDR into the Federal Republic focused all of Grass's doubts about this, or any, German state. In 1992 he denounced the "decline of political culture in unified Germany" and, in fiction, expressed his anxiety in the pessimistic Call of the Toad.

Age has done nothing to reduce Grass's relish for the big, dramatic narrative that moves in time as much as space. In 1995, the novel A Wide Field broadened his landscape to embrace 19th-century Germany. This year saw the publication of a new series of stories, My Century, which Faber & Faber will publish in English next month. Contentious as ever, Grass has also quarrelled with the SPD over the party's immigration and asylum policy. If Germany's rulers now hope that Nobel glory will put a stop to four decades of inspired truth-telling and trouble-making, they may have a long wait in store.

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